When Your PC isn’t PC

Video games, "political correctness," and hegemonic discourse.

We rarely engage with purely editorial content here at OTI, preferring to treat with art instead of opinion. But we also spend a lot of our time talking about hegemonic discourse (especially on the podcast) (drink!). So I’m using yesterday’s IGN editorial, “The Problem with Political Correctness in Video Games“, as an opportunity to riff on hegemony, discourse, subaltern narratives and video games.

What do we think about this? And, more importantly, how do we talk about what we think about this?

To save you a trip to Wikipedia, “discourse,” the way we use it at OTI, means “what we talk about and, more importantly, the way we talk about it.” Americans in particular, and Westerners as a whole, live in rather free societies. While there are occasional state controls on acceptable speech – the President and the opposition candidate both insist on veto power over their campaign managers’ statements to the press, for instance – these are tame and benign compared to the totalitarian excesses of the 20th Century. With very few exceptions, you can say anything you want. More importantly, with the growing ease of digital publishing, you can say it on a platform that millions of people can access.

Here’s an example of discourse. Let’s say you’re talking with a friend who’s the father of an eight-year-old girl. He’s speculating about whether to let his daughter get her ears pierced. The ensuing conversation could go one of several ways:

(1) “Girls are being encouraged to ‘act sexy’ so early these days. Are you sure that’s how you want your daughter to be perceived?”

(2) “Don’t you want your daughter to express herself? If you don’t let her, she might do it anyway to spite you, or, even worse, grow up repressed and stilted.”

(3) “Times are so tough, what with the recession and all. This would be a great opportunity to teach your daughter to save money, instead of spending it on earrings.”

(4) “The hell you asking me for? Let’s get a beer.”

Angelina Jolie has this conversation when her girls turn six, apparently.

These are examples of different discourses that can evolve around the subject of eight-year-old girls with piercings: sexual considerations (1), creative or psychological considerations (2), economic considerations (3), or even a willful refusal to engage (4). You, as the friend of the eight-year-old’s father, might plausibly say any of those.

If you’re in the West in the 21st century, however, you’re highly unlikely to say any of the following:

(5) “You let your daughter voice an opinion? Put her in sackcloth until her derangement passes!”

(6) “An excellent idea. Attractive jewelry may raise a suitor’s bidding price when you auction off her virgin rights.”

(7) “Crack open her skull and feast on the brain within. This way you will gain her strength.”

If you said any of these, listeners would at best hope you’re making a poor joke, and might well call the cops. Options (5), (6) and (7) are what we would call outside the range of acceptable discourse. They’re not debatable, they’re not even fringe – they’re borderline insane.

Note that discourse governs not just what’s discussed but how it’s discussed. Talking about the sexualization of pre-teens (option (1) above) is common subject matter. But you couldn’t broach option (1) by saying, “Damn, Ted – last time I saw your little girl, I almost made a pass at her!” without getting cuffed in the ear.

So, while you can say anything you want, you can’t say anything you want. But very few people feel this as a grating form of control. Not only does nobody say (5), (6), or (7), or the pervy version of (1), nobody even wants to. These aren’t options that cross our minds. The discourse governs not just what we say but how we think about issues.

To bring it back from the ludicrous: it’s not hard to picture a future in which eight-year-old girls frequently get their ears pierced (it’s common enough now, but hardly universal). If, in the far off year of 2099, your friend the dad were having this same conversation with you, you might have a different response:

(8) “You’re not letting her get her ears pierced? Hell, Ted – if you don’t pierce her ears, people will think you’re trying to lock her in infancy forever! They’ll think you’re some sick pervert.”

So the range of acceptable discourse changes over time.

In 2099, we have other things to worry about.

Granting all that: who determines what’s acceptable? That’s tricky, because the answer is “no one.” There’s no person, or even a shadowy council, laying down hard rules on what can and can’t be discussed. We can’t even honestly say “the majority” dictates what’s acceptable, because the majority doesn’t have an easily discernable will of its own. Nobody holds an annual ballot on What We Talk About When We Talk About Earrings.

So how do you know what’s acceptable? You just learn it, that’s all. You watch what subjects get people to roll their eyes and what subjects get people to applaud. If you have opinions that fall outside the range of acceptable discourse, or even on the fringe, you get shouted down or snubbed. Eventually, you either get comfortable with being a crank, or you learn to keep your weird views to yourself.

Here’s the weird thing about discourse, though: it’s not invincible. It does change over time, as we demonstrated above. A hundred years ago, the notion of a Western eight-year-old girl with pierced ears would have seemed bizarre. So how did we get to where we are today, where it’s a subject that rational friends can debate? If discourse can change, how and when does that change occur?

Let’s consider the debate between you and your friend the dad once more. He opens with option (1): he’s scared of his little girl becoming too sexualized too soon. You counter with option (2): keeping a precocious young girl from expressing herself will stifle her creativity. The debate goes back and forth, but both sides stick with their original values. The dad believes that proper sexual development trumps creativity; you believe that healthy creative expression is more important than outdated sexual mores.

The debate will continue until one of you gives up, admitting the insufficiency of your discourse, or until one of you subsumes the other’s viewpoint. “If you allow your daughter to express her creativity, she’ll grow up more confident, and make better romantic choices, than if you tried to keep her ‘innocent’ for too long.” If the dad buys this – that creativity leads to proper sexual development – then the creativity discourse emerges as dominant.

The discourse that subsumes all other discourses in a given culture is called the hegemonic discourse. No one brings it down from the mountain on a stone tablet. No one votes on it. But, through trial and error, we learn that certain buzzwords – “freedom,” “justice,” “logic,” “unemployment,” “Yankees suck” – will almost always end a discussion. They may not end it through formal debate; they may end it by, in fact, shouting your opponent down. But what’s important is that one discourse, or a limited set of discourses, have the power to trump all others.

No discussion of Jeter’s merits as a hitter can survive a sustained chorus of these words. It’s just impossible.

How does the hegemonic discourse change? That’s a Ph.D thesis in itself, but the short answer: very slowly, very painfully. The hegemonic discourse is hegemonic because it has power, and power does two things: accrete and defend itself. The most powerful discourse doesn’t defend itself through censorship: there are no literal Thought Police. Rather, the inertia of social pressure unconsciously defends it. If you don’t believe me, go into your office tomorrow and tell a male coworker with an eight-year-old girl that he’s a pervert for not letting his angel get her ears pierced (option (8) above). Nothing’s stopping you!

Discourse: what we feel we can say, and how we feel we can say it. Hegemonic discourse: the things we feel we can say that no one could possibly object to.

Still with me? Thanks for your patience. Back to video games and Colin Moriarty’s IGN editorial.

It’s tough to pin Moriarty’s thesis down: he uses some awfully vague language (“Even the most mundane and inconsequential something can send a person into a tizzy”) and speaks abstractly about abstractions. But he appears to feel threatened by the protests surrounding two games in particular, Six Days in Fallujah and the recent Tomb Raider reboot. He blames “political correctness” for “alter[ing] the landscape,” despite the fact that only the former game was affected by it (Six Days in Fallujah was scrapped; nothing has changed in the upcoming Tomb Raider reboot except, perhaps, the marketing).

If Moriarty fears that political correctness will limit the scope of games available to him, I can’t see where this fear comes from. If he wants to play video games where women are under threat of brutal assault, he has a wide catalog: the Soul Calibur series, the Tekken series, the DOA series, L.A. Noire, Red Dead Redemption, The Witcher 2, Heavy Rain, etc. If he wants to play video games where he gets to depict U.S. soldiers shooting Middle Eastern insurgents, his menu is also extensive: the Full Spectrum Warrior series, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 4, Battlefield 3, Medal of Honor (the 2010 version), and so on. The cancellation of one game and a footnote’s worth of objection to another barely limit his choices.

‘elp, ‘elp, I’m being oppressed.

But here’s the important thing: that’s not what Moriarty wants.

I’m presuming, for the sake of being charitable, that Moriarty doesn’t get his jollies from imagining women being tortured (even if only to save them) or from blowing up foreigners (even in the context of war). He’s not saying his desires aren’t being catered to. How could he write that with a straight face?

Instead, he’s raising these objections because he fears that these games might not always be available. Yes, he has plenty of games in that vein now, if he so chooses (which he might not). But Moriarty doesn’t want acquisition. Moriarty wants license. Moriarty wants the freedom to enjoy those type of games for the unlimited future, and he wants publishers to have the freedom to make them.

Moriarty’s not objecting to the closure of doors (because they’re not really closed), but to the loss of power.

Moriarty fears a future in which he can’t say what he wants (note his evocation of “thought police” and “public liberty being strangled”). He fears a future in which consumers are silenced (“we as a group of dedicated, money-spending enthusiasts should say ‘enough is enough.”) But what he longs for is a status quo in which other people can’t say what they want (“Should someone being offended by something actually matter?”). What he wants is a future in which consumers are silenced (“something deemed over-the-top and inappropriate in gaming by some commentators” should not be enough to derail Tomb Raider).

Moriarty is in favor of unfettered discussion and a creative exploration of sensitive subjects, so long as they’re the sensitive subjects he prefers.

This is a textbook example of the hegemonic discourse defending itself. While plenty of anonymous commenters on the Internet would love to explicitly shut up or beat up the Anita Sarkeesians of the world, Moriarty doesn’t go that far. But he would rather that they not voice their objections. “Don’t ridicule the creators of something because their vision doesn’t fit your own,” he says. So he uses resonant language – thought police, freedom of speech, Benjamin Franklin, George Orwell – to imply that a powerful faction is silencing a powerless mob.

Here’s how you can tell Moriarty’s defending a hegemony, rather than challenging it: his arguments fail when applied to his own case.

Moriarty constructs an example about people voicing September 11th conspiracy theories or revisionism. He feels strongly about September 11th, he says, but “I would never, ever tell them that I’m so outright offended by all of this that they should stop and that no one else should hear them out.” Yet this is exactly what he wishes would happen to the feminists, war protestors and Hindus of the video game community. He’s not going to compel them to shut up. He just wishes they would show a little class and “acknowledge that this mentality [of voicing grievances with video games] is destructive?”

“I say to game developers, make me think,” Moriarty says. “Challenge me. Make me uncomfortable.” Game developers are acknowledging consumers’ objections to games like Tomb Raider and Six Days to Fallujah. This is challenging to Moriarty. This is making him uncomfortable. His response is to write an IGN editorial.

Hegemonic discourse is full of two-way mirrors like this: principles that restrict unrepresented minorities, but don’t bar the privileged in any way. It’s deeply ironic that Moriarty spends twelve paragraphs championing freedom of speech, yet objects to the free speech, assembly and market action that resulted in Six Days of Fallujah being scrapped and Tomb Raider being, well, released unaltered. This is because the purpose of hegemonic discourse is to keep the balance of power where it is. Hegemonic discourse doesn’t need to be internally consistent. Why does the status quo have to prove anything?

These internal contradictions demonstrate that Moriarty hasn’t reasoned his position all the way through. But he’s never had to before. It’s only very recently that anyone’s challenged the notion that video games should appeal to 18-35-year-old American males first and foremost, anyone else be damned. So Moriarty seizes on a lot of powerful language, but doesn’t build a coherent case. He doesn’t engage the subaltern discourse because, really, he doesn’t have to. Gaming companies will continue to make the games he wants for many years, whether he argues on their behalf or not.

Where’s the video game that caters to MY desires?

(Does this mean that all attempts to challenge a hegemonic discourse are logical? Hardly. But hegemonic discourse never has to be logical, unless logic gets more people on its side. “YANKEES SUCK” isn’t logical, but it wins every baseball argument in 49 states. If the lone Yankees fan in Saugus, MA is going to make any headway, he’ll have to make an airtight case that the Yankees win on their merits, and he’ll have to find a Sox fan who’s willing to listen to reason.)

Dropping the academic language to editorialize a bit: I don’t think Moriarty’s arguing in bad faith, even if his arguments don’t support his position. I imagine that he genuinely feels like his way of life is under attack. And he’s not wrong! If video game designers start taking the feelings of unrepresented consumers (like women and Hindis and people who object to war) into account, Moriarty no longer gets to have everything he wants. In turn, previously unrepresented consumers now get a little bit more of what they want. The balance of power shifts from favoring one demographic to favoring several.

So he’s not wrong to characterize this as an “assault.” But he is wrong to say it’s about “freedom,” because what he wants is freedom for people who agree with him, not for those who disagree. If you disagree with him, he won’t assault you or threaten you or even tell you to shut up. He’ll just make clear that your means of expression – not even your opinion, just the boycotts and the blog posts that you use to evince it – are “hypocritical and unfair,” are “strangling creativity,” are “doing a major disservice […] to the people who want to give us new stories full of new ideas.” His hope is that they’ll sit down, ashamed, and not voice an objection again.

But the point of this article isn’t to condemn Moriarty. The position he voices is so divorced from reality – the idea that political correctness has “corrupted so many other artistic avenues” and is gunning for video games next – that there’s nothing there to condemn. If we take anything from his piece, it should be an object lesson. This is what a very comfortable person looks like when challenged. Use this observation academically or tactically, as you see fit.